With a U.S. aircraft carrier group making way towards the Philippines in a powerful show of humanitarian support, Beijing’s embassy in Manila announced that China would provide relief supplies worth 10 million renmimbi ($1.6 million), including blankets and tents.
The Xinhua state news agency said this was in addition to the $100,000 promised by the Chinese government earlier. The China Red Cross Society, which is supported by domestic and foreign donations, pledged another $100,000.
In the region and beyond, some news reporting on the initial amount offered was scathing, describing the contribution from the Asian giant as “measly,” “paltry” or “insulting.”
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman sounded defensive on Wednesday.
“The Chinese government has expressed sympathy and consolation to the Philippine people,” said Qin Gang. “And we have offered supplies in cash and in goods to the Philippines. China is also a victim of Typhoon Haiyan. We suffered the loss of life and property as well.”
According to the U.N the typhoon has affected more than 10 million people in the Philippines, where the official death toll stands at 2,275. As it weakened it moved across northern Vietnam, killing 14, and southern China’s Hainan province, where six fatalities were reported.
Even the increased Chinese aid offer of $1.6 million is modest, coming from the world’s second biggest economy. (By comparison Norway, at number 45 on the list of world economies, is sending $3.3 million and New Zealand, at number 62, is giving $2 million.)
Israel, more than 5,000 miles from Manila, had an advance assessment team on its way as early as Sunday night, with plans to set up a field hospital manned by more than 200 medical personnel in Tacloban, capital of the hardest-hit province of Leyte.
From larger economies, Britain pledged $16 million, Japan $10 million and Australia $9.6 million. The United Arab Emirates, which has around 700,000 expatriate workers from the Philippines, is sending $10 million.
The U.S. government announced an immediate $20 million in humanitarian assistance and an advance team of U.S. Marines was on the ground on Monday. Millions of dollars more are being raised by agencies such as the American Red Cross, Save the Children and the Salvation Army.
USAID, which deployed an advanced disaster assistance response team ahead of the storm, had its first aid shipment arrive in Manila on Tuesday. U.S. military aircraft began airlifting supplies into Tacloban, where hundreds of thousands of people have been left homeless and humanitarian efforts were initially hampered by damaged infrastructure and washed out roads. By late Wednesday the U.S. Marines reported having flown in 168,000 pounds of supplies including water, food, shelter materials and medical supplies.
Further, the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, two cruisers, a destroyer and supply vessel cut short a port visit in Hong Kong and were due to reach Leyte by Thursday. Additional amphibious vessels carrying more Marines are expected to head there from Okinawa.
With at least 36 countries offering help the scale of the international effort has made the response from China, whose closest city is only about 700 miles from Manila, even more jarring.
China has been embroiled in a bitter dispute with the Philippines over a resource-rich area of the South China Sea known as the Scarborough Shoal, about 130 miles away from the Philippines mainland.
Beijing claims historical ownership to the area – and virtually all of the South China Sea, where it has other disputes with Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. The Philippines says the Chinese claims violate the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The wrangle over the Scarborough Shoal saw a tense standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships last year, which ended when the Philippines effectively backed down, leaving Chinese vessels in the area.
Last January Manila brought the case to an UNCLOS arbitration tribunal, further fueling nationalist sentiment in China, which is not accustomed to smaller countries in the region challenging its claims. Beijing has refused to participate in the arbitration process despite being a party to the convention.
While not taking sides in the disputes the U.S. stresses the importance of freedom of navigation in the Asian waters. China views America’s interest in the issue as “outside interference.”
This week the Global Times, a paper linked to the Chinese Communist Party, published an editorial saying that the maritime dispute with the Philippines should not affect China’s response to the typhoon disaster.
“China, as a responsible power, should participate in relief operations to assist a disaster-stricken neighboring country, no matter whether it’s friendly or not,” it said. “China’s international image is of vital importance to its interests. If it snubs Manila this time, China will suffer great losses.”
The editorial also alluded to the online sentiments of Chinese citizens arguing against helping the Philippines.
“There are often online outcries concerning China’s decisions of offering foreign aid in recent years,” it said. “But those opposing voices don’t represent China’s mainstream attitude.”
Some of the language used on Chinese social media and other websites relating to the typhoon victims was so intemperate that an anti-discrimination body in Hong Kong advised citizens Wednesday not to use “abusive and derogatory remarks” about Filipinos.